Karel Appel

People, Birds and Sun


Not on display

Karel Appel 1921–2006
Original title
Mensen, vogels en zonnen
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1730 × 2428 mm
Purchased 1986

Display caption

This painting was made after the dispersal of the CoBrA group, but it demonstrates the artist's continuing commitment to the ideals of expressive, spontaneous painting. Appel worked with the paint at high speed and with no preconceived scheme, turning the large canvas around from time to time. The figurative elements were added last. Their appearance recalls the naivety of paintings made by children, whose untrained and unadulterated approach was much admired by CoBrA artists.

Gallery label, July 2005

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on canvas, and is unvarnished. It is signed ‘K. Appel 1954’ in the lower right corner. The coarse hemp canvas has a thin white priming. Paint has been applied to the canvas by brush, palette knife and also by squeezing paint directly from the tube, creating many areas of impasto.

Analysis has identified various pigments including: bone black, chrome yellow, iron oxide, Prussian blue, ultramarine, and zinc white. Analysis of the binding medium indicates the use of a heat bodied oil and small traces of beeswax consistent with the use of tube paints. Chalk and barium sulphate which are frequently used as extenders have been detected in the paints. Magnesium carbonate (also an extender) has been found in mixed purple and red paints, which indicates the use of Winsor & Newton oil paints. The artist may also have used tube paints of other brands simultaneously.

The painting is currently stable and in a good condition, but exhibits various degradation phenomena associated with twentieth century oil paintings. There are various drying defects visible on the painting including cracking, and wrinkled paint. Wrinkling of oil paint can be caused when paint is applied thickly such that the surface dries faster than the bulk paint. The painting has been associated with delamination (flaking paint) caused by poor adhesion between paint layers, that relates to the materials of the painting. Conservation work has been carried out to carefully re-adhere or consolidate vulnerable paint flakes, to prevent paint loss. There are also various passages that are water sensitive. Water sensitivity is often observed in unvarnished twentieth century oil paintings and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). The painting is framed and is currently displayed unglazed.

Further reading
Klaus Ottmann, Karel Appel: a Gesture of Color: Paintings and Sculptures, 1947–2004, Munich, 2016.
Laura Mills, Aviva Burnstock, Filipe Duarte, Suzanne de Groot, Luc Megens, Madeline Bisschoff, Henk van Keulenand Klaas Jan van den Berg, ‘Water sensitivity of modern artists' oil paints’ in ICOM Committee for Conservation 15th Triennial Congress Preprints, ed. Janet Paris, France, 2008, pp.651–659.
Anna Cooper, Water Sensitive Paints in the 20th Century, master thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2012.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was undertaken as part of the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

Catalogue entry

T04163 People, Birds and Sun 1954 Mensen, vogels en zonnen

Oil on canvas 1730 × 2428 (68 1/8 × 95 5/8)
Inscribed ‘K.AppeL '54’ b.r. and ‘KHB 27 L'Hommes, oiseaux et soleilles 1954 – 172 × 230 Appel | amsterdam’ on top stretcher bar and ‘mensen, sonnen & vogels K Appel’ on bottom stretcher bar
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Paintings by Karel Appel, Institute of Contemporary Arts, April–May 1957 (13, as ‘Hommes, animaux, soleil’); Karel Appel, Georges Mathieu, Mattia Moreni, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Kunsthalle, Basel, Jan.–March 1959, Musée des beaux arts, Neuchâtel, March–April 1959 (13, as ‘Hommes, oiseaux, soleil’); Nederlands bijdrage - tot de internationale ontwikkeling sedert 1945, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, June–Sept. 1962, Museum of the Arts, Montreal, Oct.–Nov. 1962, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Nov.–Dec. 1962, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Jan.–Feb. 1963 (4); Appel's Oogappels, Central Museum, Utrecht, Aug.–Sept. 1970 (25, repr.p.28); Appel's Appels, Musée d'art contemporain, Montreal, April–May 1972, Rothmans Art Gallery, Stratford, Ontario, June–Sept. 1972, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, Oct.–Nov.1972, Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta, Nov.–Dec. 1972, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Mannitoba, Dec. 1972–Jan. 1973, Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Halifax, March–April 1973, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, April–May 1973, London Public Library and Art Museum, Ontario, June–July 1973, New York Cultural Centre, July–Sept. 1973 (24, repr. p.32 in col.)
Lit: Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.80 repr. (col.); Simon Wilson, The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, 2nd ed., 1991, p.192, repr. p.191 (col.). Also repr: Artstudio, no.9, Summer 1988, p.115 (col.); Simon Wilson, The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, 1st ed., 1990, p.190 (col.)

‘People, Birds and Sun’ depicts a group of four or five figures in a frontal, schematic and childlike manner. Sun-like motifs are located at the centre and corners of the upper canvas area. The image is enmeshed in a surface of brilliantly coloured marks and patches, with red, yellow and blue predominating. It was executed at high speed, the paint being thickly impastoed with a palette knife or applied directly from the tube. ‘People, Birds and Sun’ was a relatively large painting for the artist at this time.

In conversation with the compiler in New York on 6 March 1990, the artist said that the imagery of invented figures and animals emerged at the end of a process initiated with no preconceived ideas. The starting point for his paintings of this period had been ‘just fairly thick paint and the canvas’. The artist himself was ‘empty’: ‘as I filled up the canvas I filled myself up at the same time’. In the process of manipulating the paint, images emerged which the artist would deliberately destroy by turning the canvas upsidedown and reworking. At a certain point Appel would restore and enhance the figurative aspects of the work in order to ‘give a simple character to the image - like people and animals’. Appel's titles, like that of T04163, were almost always simply descriptive and conceived at the end of the painting process. This approach to painting, in which automatism is used as a spontaneous generating force, had been pioneered by Surrealist artists and was a practice widely adopted by a younger generation of expressive abstract artists in the 1950s. Appel, however, remained firmly and deliberately wedded to figurative imagery. The imagery in T04163 is typical of his paintings from this period both in type and style. However, while Appel continued to explore subjects of children and animals from his Cobra years through the decade of the 1950s, his style became progressively more energetic and his canvases more evidently worked. The evenly coloured surfaces of his paintings in the late 1940s (see, for example, ‘Hip, Hip, Hoorah’, T05077, repr. below) gave way to more variegated, linear and swiftly executed compositions such as T04167.

By 1951 the Cobra group had dispersed and those of its adherents based in Paris were gradually absorbed into the local art scene. Appel, who had moved to Paris from Amsterdam in 1950, consciously distanced himself from his Cobra peers, apart from the painter Jean-Michel Atlan. In 1952 he met Michel Tapié, dealer, writer on art and propagandist for ‘Un art autre’ (‘a different art’), a phrase he used as the title of his book published in 1952. Tapié called for an art that was vehement, aggressive, spontaneous and irrational. His approach was one in which theories and conventions were ousted in favour of raw and unrestrained creativity. The material reality of the resulting object was considered more significant than its imagery or style. In the exhibition Un art autre, held at the Galerie Fachetti, Paris in 1952, Michel Tapié brought together a diverse group of artists: Appel, Bryen, Burri, Dubuffet, Domoto, de Kooning, Fautrier, Ruth Francken, René Guitte, Hosiasson, Imai, Jenking, Mathieu, Riopelle, Tobey and Wols. For Tapié the main exponents of this new art were Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier, both of whom used new materials in place of oil paint. This gave their work a heavy and impastoed appearence and, most importantly, allowed the physical manipulation of the medium to become a fundamental part of the creative process and a crucial part of the expressive impact of the finished work.

Although Appel had little personal contact with the artists included in Tapié's show, he was influenced by this interest in matter. In conversation with the compiler he recalled that, ‘In 1953 I started to work with the material. The matter was important, as a physical battle and as [a means of] invention’. According to the artist, his influences were not just from within the art world. His growing concern for the physical qualities of the medium reflected his increasing awareness of, and interest in, the contemporary preoccupations of the scientific community, which was coming to grips with the implications of the nuclear age and exploring new theories about the constitution of matter. The artist's concern with the expressive potential of the physical medium is evident in T04163 in the energetic incising of the imagery into the dense and layered substance of the paint.

T04163 was made in Paris at a time when Appel's work was becoming more widely known and appreciated. 1953 saw his first one-man exhibition at the Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, and in the following year he won the Unesco prize at the Venice Biennale. In the same year he also had one-man exhibitions in New York and Paris. Michel Ragon (‘Karel Appel: 1947–1960’, translated by Rachel Bowlby, in Karel Appel, exh. cat., Osaka 1989, p.19) saw the overt interest in matter found in T04163 as marking a decisive change in the character of Appel's art. He linked this to the artist's new found success, arguing that, ‘between 1952 and 1957, in the excitement of being at last recognised, of being celebrated, published, understood, Appel gathers up all he has learned, kneads it together, spews it out again in an intoxication of painting, producing, existing’.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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